MHS Members Gone Bad

By Jeremy Dibbell

I suspect every membership-based organization has some stories about the members that have warranted expulsion over the years. The MHS kicked out three members in its first two decades (but has used the practice very sparingly – if at all – ever since). What did those members do to warrant removal from our membership rolls?

The first two expelled members were booted at the same meeting, on 20 July 1797. The Proceedings (Vol. I, p. 106) record: “Whereas Edmund Randolph and William Blount, who have been elected Corresponding Members of this Society, are, in our opinion, unworthy of our confidence; therefore, Voted, That they be no longer considered as Corresponding Members.” The motion passed without dissent. Randolph, the the Attorney General of the United States, was nominated by Jeremy Belknap and elected to Corresponding Membership on 23 October 1792. Blount was at the time of his expulsion a fairly new member, having just been elected on 25 October 1796.

Why the boot? Randolph had resigned as Secretary of State in 1795 after a scandal involving intercepted messages from the French government that were reportedly embarrassing to the Washington Administration. Blount, a United States Senator representing the new state of Tennessee, had been caught up in a scheme to incite the Creek and Cherokee Indians to provide assistance to the British in an invasion of Spanish West Florida. He was impeached by the House of Representatives on 7 July 1797 (for “a high misdemeanor, entirely inconsistent with his public duty and trust as a Senator”), and expelled by the Senate the following day. Twelve days later, the Historical Society acted as well.

The third expulsion hit much closer to home. Samuel Turell of Boston, a watchmaker, was elected a Resident Member of the Society in 1793, and served as Cabinet-Keeper from 1793 until 1808. In 1802, Turell requested permission to borrow certain natural history specimens from the Society’s collections for a new museum, which was granted. Five years later, though, the Society got a little anxious about Turell’s Cabinet, and a committee was formed on 25 August 1807 “to demand of Mr. Turell, Cabinet-Keeper, the various articles belonging to the Society which have been in his possession, and to see that they are returned to the Cabinet.”

The committee’s demands went unheeded, and on 27 August 1811 the members of the Society voted to expel Turell from the MHS because he had not returned the articles borrowed from the collections, and had “otherwise acted unworthily as a member.”

In his bicentennial history of the Historical Society, former Director Len Tucker notes “It is not known if Turell ever returned the items he had borrowed.”